As mentioned recently, after reading Auspicious Good Fortune, people sometimes kindly ask about my health, although that was not a major thread in the book. Unlike in Hollywood, real-life stories often leave issues unresolved, which can be a bit disappointing. Around the time I embarked on the spiritual life, I was visited by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) – a guest I couldn’t oust. It stayed in various forms for a couple of decades, soon overlapping with – and ultimately being replaced by – chronic migraines. Apparently the two often come as a special package.
I’m sure there was no coincidence in the timing of the onset, and by that I don’t mean the spiritual life was bad for my health – quite the contrary. Up until that time I indulged in some rather unhealthy habits, in order to escape from my own interior world. Letting go those addictive traits meant facing the underlying causes of them. That’s a good thing when you’re seeking the ultimate Truth, but some discoveries along the way are not so heartening. The journey can thus seem to become more arduous, rather than getting easier. When challenges arise, although the ideal reaction may be cheerful acceptance, instead it’s tempting to ask why they’ve arisen.
One reason for physical challenges could be that when following a spiritual life, one’s highest priority is spiritual progress. The soul might choose this time to work out the karmic results of one’s past actions, either from this life or previous lives. While Sri Chinmoy teaches the art of self-transcendence, he also teaches us to care for our physical health and certainly does not recommend we seek out suffering. But when it does come along, poor health can be a vehicle for progress, affording deeper insights into ourselves and empathy with the suffering of others.
Question: For the seekers who aspire to realise God, why does God make it so difficult?
Sri Chinmoy: He has not made it difficult for the sincere seekers. For the sincere seekers the road is very short. Only for the doubtful seekers, the road is very long. This moment you feel that God is very kind to you, but the next moment you get some blow or pain and you lose faith. Some unconscious part of you says, “O God, why are You so cruel to me? This morning I meditated well, so how is it that my body is suffering?” This will be your question to God. At that time if you can say, “Although I am suffering such pain, perhaps something infinitely more serious was going to happen to me and God saved me. God is so kind to me.” Like this, if you can change your attitude towards God, immediately the road becomes easier. You have some kind of pain, but if you feel that it could have been infinitely worse, then immediately you will see that you are making inner progress. The road is long only for those who do not feel gratitude to God.
– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from FW 425
I was born with a conundrum. Child to a line of stoics in the old British tradition, I seem to have been blessed nonetheless with heightened senses and a rather low threshold for pain. Gratitude has not been a consistent theme throughout my years of unstable health – certainly not at the most challenging times.
For stretches of weeks or months, migraines would recur every two days or so. Combined with CFS, they made work, travel or socialising all but impossible. When CFS gradually receded to leave only migraines, I was genuinely grateful. As these followed me for fifteen years with varying frequency and severity, I admit to wallowing in self-pity or simply succumbing to frustration on numerous occasions, but I knew from experience things could be much worse.
Without wanting to disturb the stiff upper-lips of my ancestors, allow me a brief description for those who’ve never met a migraine. Firstly, it’s not a headache. While pain in the head is a significant aspect, ‘ache’ does not generally do the sensation justice. It also comes with a wide range of special effects and fancy features that have nothing to do with pain at all – more the digestion, cognitive function, emotions, vision and other senses.
My own experience varied, but the effect on the nerves was usually something like that of a dog barking in the face, while someone tried simultaneously – for reasons unknown – to drill a hole in the side of the head. Words and thoughts would jumble themselves. The vision might be as though two-dimensional or as though looking through cracked glass. There might be a flu-like feeling of incapacitation. Sometimes there was the added sensation in the stomach of riding a cross-channel ferry. An episode lasted anywhere from six hours to three days.
Whenever the clouds dispersed and each ‘adventure’ came to an end, the relief left me feeling superhuman. Pretty much anything seemed possible, and almost anything would be tolerable to me. Such joy and empowerment I’d rarely otherwise have experienced in everyday life, and I felt as true a gratitude as I know. It was almost worth going through the discomfort to come out the other side of it. Almost.
People who do not have the capacity sometimes are lucky because they can make surrender — let us not call it helpless surrender, because that is very bad, but cheerful surrender. You can say, “O God, You did not give me the capacity to do something, to perform something, but my gratitude-prayer to You is that whatever You have given me, I should be satisfied with.”
So if you are satisfied with what you have, then you can make the fastest progress. There is another way you can be satisfied with what you have: just look around. You will see that there are many people who are suffering much more than you are. If you go to the hospital, you will see how many are in infinitely worse condition than you are. When you think of your suffering, think of the hospital. Then this thought will be your immediate medicine. That is what I do. Sometimes, when I can walk only with utmost difficulty, I think of some human beings who cannot walk, cannot move at all, and my suffering seems like nothing in comparison to theirs. At that time, I say to God, “O God, You are so kind to me. Still I can walk a little, whereas so many people in Your creation cannot walk at all.”
– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from SCA 1126
I did all in my power and imagination to overcome both conditions – often joking that I’d try anything legal – but as they went on so long, I had to accept the idea that they might persist forever, if such was God’s Will. I might otherwise have gone a bit mad.
Since pretty much anything might spark an episode – from supermarket shopping to an hour’s lost sleep, a jog in the park to an uncomfortable conversation – I saw no sense adding more challenges to life voluntarily. But where challenges or opportunities arose in the course of my spiritual life, family life or work, I did all I could to accept them, assuming life might otherwise pass me by entirely.
I’ve never been good at acting, or even lying, but I made it my mission to transcend these symptoms whenever finding myself in company. Sometimes there was simply no negotiating, but over time I increasingly learned to separate myself from them. While my peers may have been taking on far greater challenges outwardly – opening a café perhaps, or running an ultramarathon – mine was just to appear as sensible and calm as possible while something was barking in my face, someone was probing the side of my head, and so on.
The first time I met a migraine was on a transatlantic flight. I had no idea what was happening, and nor did anyone else. The cabin crew kindly gave me their rest area, a proper duvet from First Class and two cans of oxygen. Someone was assigned to take me off the plane and through immigration in a wheelchair. I laugh now at the memory, though I certainly didn’t at the time. Migraines of some degree would travel with me on most flights thereafter, affording me plenty of chances to practise behaving like a normal person instead of making a fuss.
You may say it was my good genes or the blessings of my forebears that helped me in my pursuit. Maybe it was just a streak of stubbornness. I’d often be so spent from these feats of endurance I’d be no use for anything the next day. The whole exercise might thus sound masochistic, counterproductive, or a bit daft at best, but I have no regrets – none but the few times I probably shouldn’t have been driving a car.
I have two little dogs. When they suffer for some reason, on the strength of my oneness with them, I also suffer. God has created these little dogs, but I have established so much oneness with them that I feel miserable when they suffer.
In our case, God has created us. Naturally His Affection, Concern and Compassion for us will be infinitely more than what I can ever feel for my little dogs. So when we are suffering, we have to feel that God also is suffering. If my Beloved Supreme agrees to suffer with me, then I have to accept my fate as it is.
It is not that God has given us this suffering so that we can become a better person. God does not work that way. Only if it is something really good does God give it. But if something painful happens, then God may tolerate it. At that time, if we love God, we will say, “If God can tolerate this pain inside me, with me and for me, then I will have nothing to say against it. I will only pray to God for the fulfilment of His Will.
– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from SCA 1193
In the past year everything has improved so radically I almost dare imagine the worst is over. The sense I used to have when the clouds finally dispersed is intensified, as day after day I’m free from pain and all the other special features – the stray dogs, phantom neurosurgeons and so on. A natural reaction is to wonder why.
Granted, I do at least two hours of spiritual practice a day; I eat only plant-based, organic, gluten-free wholefoods, including a kilo of fresh vegetables and fruit a day; I walk about four miles a day; I watch less than an hour of telly a day and have nothing to do with social media; I do yoga; I take cold showers; I pay my taxes; I’m kind to animals; I try to be a good, helpful and happy person in any way I can. Do I not then deserve to be well?
I, I, I – of course it doesn’t work like that. While it’s important that we each do our best, that effort perhaps counts for only one per cent of any outcome. As Sri Chinmoy teaches, the other ninety-nine per cent comes from Grace. When we look closely, we realise even ‘our’ one per cent is Grace.
In the beginning, we always feel that it is one per cent God’s Grace and ninety-nine per cent our hard labour. That is what our stupidity tells us. Then gradually we change our philosophy. We say that it is ninety-nine per cent God’s Grace and one per cent our labour. Then we come to the point where we say, “Are we sure that our labour is even one per cent?” We dive deep within for just a few seconds and we see that it is all one hundred per cent God’s Grace.
– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from SCA 1194
Who knows if my days of ill health are over. Perhaps this is only a reprieve – maybe it’ll all come back, or be replaced with something else – but there’s no point worrying or even wondering about that.
I don’t remember where I read it, but I recall Sri Chinmoy said something along the lines that if by Grace we have been cured of something, we must remain grateful to the Source in order to keep our previous ailments at bay. That being the case, I pray I remember to do so for my every remaining day on earth.
Right now it feels as though some part of me, having been cryogenically preserved, is thawing and being coaxed back to life. I’m trying to reacquaint myself with the world and with life – assess what’s changed and what hasn’t in the last twenty years. Being as I am in my very late forties, perhaps for me life begins at fifty 🙂 . Either way, one thing is certain:
Is by far
The best attitude.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 41226
These rhyming plays began on a Christmas Trip with Sri Chinmoy in China, December 2004. On our winter retreats, as well as meditating with Sri Chinmoy in person, we had the privilege of immersing ourselves in his new creations: songs, prayers, aphorisms, stories and artwork. In the evenings it usually fell to us, his disciples, to entertain one another on stage. Much of the programme consisted of plays based on the Master’s stories – some of which are tales retold from Indian folklore, others anecdotes from Sri Chinmoy’s own experience, others born of his own creative imagination, and many seemingly from delightful worlds between.
I rarely involved myself in plays up until then. I was – and still am – terrible at acting. My self-consciousness and inability to handle pressure led to a chaos of forgetfulness on stage. It saddened me not to contribute though, so that year in China I decided to take a risk and play to my strengths. I like to write. I could reliably read something out from paper. I could draw some faces on card, cut out holes for eyes, and tie them back as make-shift masks. The characters would mime, while others – including myself – would read their lines into a microphone off-stage. Hence everyone was hiding, which suited me well. The actors did not need to memorise their lines verbatim, which suited them too.
I was quite sure it would end in disaster even before it began, but to my surprise there were no accidents, even amongst the short-sighted, and any confusion was only a minor distraction. Sri Chinmoy was attentive, and I dare say even seemed quite pleased, which astonished me no end. So a new tradition began, and has continued beyond the Master’s passing, as the Sri Chinmoy Centre meets each year for Christmas Trips.
As with all his art forms, Sri Chinmoy’s stories spring from a source of meditation, and convey his timeless spiritual teachings. While the Master encouraged us to embellish them in our plays, this is a fine line to tread. I sincerely hope to have kept the essential message in each, and above all encourage the reader to enjoy them in the original.
One of my colleagues – an especially hard-working and time-pressed one – consciously avoids the word ‘busy’. As an exercise I tried the same for a week and found it surprisingly awkward. That was an education. I’ll be trying to make it a long-term habit, as the mere effort has changed my outlook. The poor word itself must feel overwhelmed by over-use. Usually preceded by ‘too’, it implies exhaustion, unwillingness and stress (yet another over-worked word).
Of course, many people genuinely like to work. A beach holiday would be the stuff of nightmares for some. When hailing a taxi recently I was greeted by a man well into his seventies. He’d taken to the life of a cabbie on retirement, as he’d found his days too long and uneventful. How spritely and positive he was, how willing to be of service.
I love to be occupied too, and would always rather have too much to do than not enough. But almost any action can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the extremes to which it’s taken, and – no doubt more importantly – the intentions driving it. Food is good and necessary, but eating too much or too little can be harmful and may lead to compulsions. One needs a certain number of belongings to exist in reasonable comfort, but hoarding for the next zombie apocalypse is perhaps going a bit far. Just so with work. There comes a point when one must say: good enough is good enough.
For me this is not a natural tendency. I caught myself the other day with a shovel in both hands, decanting compost from one bin to another and determined to discharge the task ‘perfectly’. Yes, every last pineapple peeling, each shred of brown paper, the very teabag in the furthest corner must be winkled out, cast onto the wheelbarrow and transported without the loss of a single worm or crumb of material along the way. I laughed aloud at myself. Here is a stinking heap of waste, mouldering, writhing with flies and nameless invertebrates – the least perfect substance one could imagine. Yet I perspired not just from the physical labour, but also from the self-imposed duty of a timely and tidy execution.
Once my self-mockery had receded, I took a deep breath (facing away from the wheelbarrow), and asked myself where God is in all this. For me there is always – and must always be – a reply to that question, it’s just a matter of remembering to ask. He is perhaps easier found in the kitchen or the vegetable garden, but I’ve no doubt He resides there too – in the transformative nature of compost, rife with as many metaphors as microorganisms.
But I am either busy
Or I do not answer.”
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 26248
The Sri Chinmoy Centre recently offered a free meditation course in York. I always find such classes illumining and enjoyable – sharing a practice that has been life-changing in the case of my peers and myself, and which proves at least life-enhancing in many more cases. For me it’s far more than just a hobby, but I’m glad to see this simple tool entering the mainstream, now widely adopted for physical and mental health, if not for spiritual growth per se.
Sadly, many people feel too busy to dedicate even 5 or 10 minutes a day to switching off devices and delving into quietude. They’re frustrated not to do it ‘perfectly’ first time, even though the effort itself is almost sure to bear fruit. The chronically overwhelmed – those who would perhaps benefit most – are often the least likely to practise. Strange how the advance in technology seems only to have made us feel more fully occupied. Since we no longer have to dig the field for food, hew out our own shelter from stone, chop wood for warmth, stitch our own clothes from hide or handwovens, how did we come to this?
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted my generation would be working a 15-hour week. In fact our expectations – of cleanliness, comfort and enjoyment – have risen in line with our standard of living, if not beyond it. The perceived value of time – both for leisure and work – is growing constantly. The vast array of choices available in every sphere of life add pressure and take time. Add to that the pressure of social media and other time spent (or wasted) online – incessantly checking emails, news, stats – often while trying to complete a number of other tasks, and the perceived increase in busyness is no great mystery. Perhaps Keynes did not reckon on the power of Parkinson’s Law – that work really does expand to fit the available time. He surely didn’t reckon on the power of the Internet to distract, confuse and harry.
Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.”
– The Economist
Whereas the privilege of sloth used to be a sign of wealth in centuries past, it seems busyness has become a badge of honour. There is a growing sense that if one is not doing at least two things simultaneously throughout all waking hours, and is not open to communication the rest of the time, one’s life is not important, one is either selfish, lazy or has nothing valuable to contribute. Indeed gratuitous busyness can be driven by the ego, by a lack of self-acceptance, by the fear of meeting one’s very self in stillness and quietude, and of being confronted by inadequacies in the dark alley of the mind. (You needn’t wonder how I know this.)
Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”
– Lao Tzu
Though I eschew social media and avoid wasting too much time in other ways, I regularly catch myself assuming busyness is related to self-worth, if only as a distant cousin. Occupation is good – it pays the bills, it builds and creates useful things, it helps the body remain fit, keeps the mind out of mischief and brings a sense of contribution that is no doubt valuable – but inwardly it is just a vehicle and not the goal. Clearly I am only part-way towards that goal myself, but it’s one I long to reach. With baby steps I’m gaining ground, thanks to the teachings of Sri Chinmoy. Essentially the key is to feel awareness inwardly and outwardly at the same time during any activity. Though it may sound counter-productive, rather than splitting attention, it actually focuses attention.
During action, the best way to meditate is to remember to offer yourself, the action, and the result of the action to the Supreme. When you stop meditating and enter into the world of action, think of your action as a continuation of your meditation. When you meditate in silence, you go very high, very deep. And when you begin your daily activities, feel that this is another form of meditation which is called manifestation. Meditation in action is manifestation.”
– Sri Chinmoy, MCV 71
At our meditation retreats in New York twice a year, each visitor takes at least one shift preparing or serving meals. Cooking takes place at a vegetarian restaurant called Annam Brahma, across the road from the grounds where we meditate and where Sri Chinmoy himself spent a great deal of time during his life. Whether weighing or chopping vegetables, stirring great vats of curry, or washing up afterwards, we work in silence as per Sri Chinmoy’s request, excepting any words deemed necessary. I love the stillness amidst the dynamism. A somewhat monastic atmosphere pervades, an almost tangible divinity, far from anything to be expected in a hot and bustling kitchen.
Lo, you will not be able
To find any difference
Between Heaven and earth.”
– Sri Chinmoy FF 9161
Though the tasks are simple and leave the mind free for the most part, one almost cannot think about mundane earthly things in a place that has been dedicated to the soulful preparation of food for decades. According to Sri Chinmoy, a cook’s consciousness can affect the food itself, and thus the recipient. While preparing food at home I try to recall the feeling of Annam Brahma as best I can, with varying success. I am not a natural multi-tasker, but in trying to centre myself, clear my mind and focus solely on the task at hand, I am better placed at least to avert disaster in the kitchen.
If I may use the forbidden word once more, in all my life I have never been so busy as I am these days – or should I say I have never had so little time to waste – but I’ve also never felt so well or so content. Although my days are long and start early, my week’s paid work takes just slightly more time than Keynes predicted. I feel very fortunate the rest of my time is largely taken up by household chores. Despite a genuine concern for the rights of women, I confess to being particularly well suited to domesticity. As any nun or monk will tell you, simple tasks lend themselves more readily to a life of inner reflection.
There is no such thing
As insignificant work.
Therefore, we must needs do everything
With our heart’s love
And our life’s respect.”
– Sri Chinmoy FF 7207
Ours is a dynamic and abundant path, and I’ll be forever learning along the way. Sri Chinmoy asks that we have an occupation, that we remain active and serve others as much and as often as we can. But just as a prayer recited in parrot-fashion may not reach the intended Recipient, work carried out mechanically, unwillingly, or even resentfully can have no inner benefit, and perhaps only little benefit outwardly. Ours is to try and live the inner and outer lives in tandem. In so doing, one may fit ever more into a day or a week. Busyness then becomes ever more efficient, and time seems increasingly elastic. Benjamin Franklin was right about more than just electricity.
Not how busy you are
But why you are busy
Is what matters.
Are you busy because
Your mind is criticising everyone
Or because your heart is loving everyone?”
– Sri Chinmoy, FF 4490
What do you want?
I want good health.
Meditate on a vegetable garden.
Meditate on a dancing child.
– Sri Chinmoy, Meditate on
I never imagined I’d turn into a packet-reading food-nerd. I thought that kind of life was for other people. My past experience with strict diets didn’t bear any discernible fruit. One excluded all fruit in fact, as well as dairy, gluten, soya and anything that was even a distant relative of fungus. I clove to it rigidly for 18 months, on the advice of a dubious practitioner, and felt precisely the same as before. I ended it suddenly and spectacularly – celebrating with pizza and ice cream – then came out in a nasty rash. That’s the sole physical response I remember from a long and disappointing episode. I denounced diets as hokum from then on.
Having been brought up in the British stiff-upper-lip tradition, I tend not to talk about ailments unless people ask specifically – and perhaps even repeatedly, so I know they’re not just being polite. We are not, I think it can be safely said, a family of malingerers. My father recently broke his back in two places, but cycled home four miles and slept on it a night before seeking medical advice. My brother once fractured his foot in the rigours of a marathon, but we are not predisposed to rest. The break thus opened three times more, until some bone had to be purloined from elsewhere and bolted on with metal to be certain. Though I’m probably not the most stoic amongst us, we are all determined problem-solvers. We can also be stubbornly – perhaps even ruthlessly – positive.
I’ve had more than 20 years of sketchy health, which is not at all interesting in itself, but it has led to many interesting lessons. After reading Auspicious Good Fortune, people often ask what has happened to my physical strength since the end of the book – not, I hope, because my physical struggle was the most engaging part of the story, but because that part of the story was left unresolved. In answer, my recovery is still in progress, but has come on in leaps and bounds – largely thanks to two discoveries, both of which I consider miracles.
I’m a firm believer in prayers being answered at God’s appointed Hour, and not a moment sooner. It was 2011 when I came across Ashok Gupta, whose excellent course brought me around 70% recovery from CFS, for which I’ll be forever grateful. The remaining 30% I assumed I’d need to manage long-term, which I’d already accepted gladly in comparison. Then earlier this year came the second miracle. This one may be of interest to those with pretty much any condition that defies traditional medicine. Hence I’m sharing it here with genuine enthusiasm, rather than evangelism. If you and yours are already healthy, more power to you. No need to take the trouble of reading on.
* * *
I don’t set out to disparage our beloved National Health Service. In Britain we’re lucky still to have one at all. If ever I find some important part of me has fallen off, or dramatically changed shape, I’ll be straight on the phone to them (assuming hands, mouth and ears are still intact). But while the general practitioner in a village surgery is doubtless employed as God’s instrument on a regular basis, one cannot expect him or her to be omniscient.
My current household comprises: my mother with a long history of MS (or some such, it was never confirmed), myself with a long history of ME, and one small dog with mobility issues (her behavioural issues may or may not be relevant here). Perhaps the latter can be considered a control in our experiment, as she shows no interest in taking part.
It was my mother who discovered Terry Wahls – purely by ‘chance’ if you believe such things – a medical doctor in the US who developed MS, and who was gradually declining, as science would expect. She was eventually confined to a wheelchair, but with a busy consulting job and two small children, she wasn’t about to give in. On top of her existing duties, with painstaking research and experimentation, she designed a regime of diet, exercise and meditation. Within five months she was not just out of the wheelchair, she was riding a bike.
As you can probably gather, this is exactly the kind of gung-ho no-nonsense approach to life that would appeal to my family. “We have to try it,” I said, and so we did, but without expectation. Initially I followed the guidelines myself just for solidarity, as well as for practicality – I’m Head Chef at home and didn’t fancy cooking different meals for each of us. I hadn’t even hoped for any personal benefit, but now I follow gladly for my own sake too.
* * *
The first thing people tend to ask is what we’re not allowed to eat, but it’s more about eating enough ‘good’ things in as wide a variety as possible, and in almost comical quantities. There is simply very little space left in a human body for ‘bad’ things once that’s done. Essentially ‘bad’ means: gluten, dairy, refined sugar, anything overly processed or starchy, and anything grown with the help of chemicals. In brief, ‘good’ means nine tightly packed cups a day – three heaped dinner plates – of fresh fruit and vegetables. A third are greens, a third sulphur-rich (mushrooms, brassicas and oniony things), and a third are richly coloured. Ideally one would eat a rainbow daily.
The only sticking point is that TW is a staunch carnivore. To the dismay of our dog, we’ve adapted the regime to a vegetarian lifestyle. For me – following the teachings of Sri Chinmoy* – this is largely a spiritual choice, but just about any reason you can think of is a good one as far as I’m concerned, and has been since my teens. My mother has made the choice more recently for a variety of reasons (none of which is my coercion, I must add). But despite our ‘cheating’ by not living like proper cave-persons and abiding by their more gruesome traditions, the changes are remarkable. In two days we both felt quite different. At three months, the results now border on the magical.
We have two deliveries a week, containing a full colour spectrum of organic fruit and vegetables. It’s like a game of Tetris trying to fit the parcels into the fridge without them getting squashed or falling out again. The mound of produce in each meal for two looks like enough for a family reunion, or for some herbivorous zoo animal. Within days, the shelves are completely bare again.
* The kind of food that keeps the body and mind calm and quiet is the best food for those following the spiritual life. Naturally, vegetables are far better than meat. Meat comes from the animals, which are always fighting and destroying one another. If we eat meat, then the animal consciousness enters into us. And it is this animal consciousness that we want to transcend. But the consciousness of vegetables and fruits is very mild. They are not destructive like animals.
– Sri Chinmoy, My Rose Petals
* * *
The second thing people usually ask is whether we crave or miss anything, and the answer is genuinely: no. There’s an overwhelming sense of abundance, rather than of abstinence. With plenteous ‘good’ fats and a vast array of condiments, pretty much anything can be made delicious, but organically grown versions of pretty much anything are markedly more flavoursome anyway. They tend to taste as one would hope they’d taste, rather than just looking right and being a bland disappointment in the eating.
Some say, “I wouldn’t have the will-power,” but truly it’s organisation that counts. Sourcing, preparing and even making time to eat such quantities takes planning of almost military standards. Very fortunately we both have a penchant for spreadsheets, which I realise not everyone shares. A pencil and paper would be the required minimum.
Others say they couldn’t give up cheese / chocolate biscuits / (insert secret pleasure of your choice). But if it meant the difference between being able to walk and not… they might give it a go. 🙂
Some say the expense would put them off, or would be truly prohibitive. Indeed, we’re extremely lucky having access to ingredients of such quality. But even fast food is not always cheap. Adapting a house, garden and car for disabled access is not much of a bargain either. Missing countless days of work over several years is about the least cost-effective way to live – especially when one is already rendered unemployable in the traditional sense, and has no insurance or sick leave to fall back on. And that’s just our own past and present. Who knows what troubles, as yet unrevealed, we’re nipping in the bud.
The fact is that one needn’t jump in with both feet, as we have done, to see improvements. A bag of organic kale costs less than a bag of Doritos of the same weight, for example. If you want to know how to make kale chips, I’ll tell you for nothing, but you might not want to get me started on that. 🙂
* * *
A recent visit to America for the Sri Chinmoy Centre bi-annual celebrations was the biggest test for me yet: my first foreign trip since starting this regime, and straight into the home of Coca Cola, McDonalds and Hostess cakes. But my jaw was set. I first played vegetable Tetris in the freezer as well as in the fridge before leaving home, so my mother could subsist without me for a while. I then offered a fervent prayer against power-cuts in my absence.
On landing in New York, before even taking so much as a glass of water, I forayed out into a raging thunderstorm for supplies at our local store, Guru Health Foods. Every day saw me hurrying away with boxes and boxes of greens between singing practices and meditations.
Only once I made a trip from Queens to Manhattan, with my heart set on visiting a certain health-food supermarket – highly acclaimed for quality and variety. I imagined my new obsession would be fed sumptuously, and I’d struggle to carry all my chosen treasures home. In the event I turned my nose up at most of it, and returned with just two types of radish in a paper bag. It was then I realised the full extent of my transformation to packet-reader. You may laugh. I certainly did. But the proof of the pudding – or daikon – is in the eating. For the full ten days I stuck to my guns, and felt astonishingly well.
* * *
Landing back in England I’m impatient to see our new vegetable garden, converted from a disused triangle of lawn, with raised wooden beds at scooter-friendly height. I arrive to find everything about it tidy and sturdily built, and now can’t wait to see it burgeoning with green.
My mother has drawn out detailed plans several times on graph paper, but in the end we just have to dive in – accepting we are novices and will make mistakes. Normal people have their vegetable patches out the back somewhere, but ours has ended up beside the pavement, where all and sundry can monitor our progress and pass comment. Nobody has offered anything but enthusiasm so far, and a few secret scraps of advice. All seem to share in the anticipation.
We dig out little trenches for seeds and seedlings my mother has been nurturing. Our ambition has crept up and up – to the heady heights of cabbages, cauliflowers, chard, rocket, pak choi, watercress, peas, beans, salad leaves, radishes, kohl rabi, two colours of tomato, several types of broccoli and kale. Elsewhere are various herbs, strawberries, raspberries, tayberries and blueberries. I laugh now as I didn’t know what kohl rabi was before all this began. I’d never eaten kimchi. I’d never cooked buckwheat or chicory or a curry from scratch. It’s a veritable whirlwind of adventure.
I breathe in the fragrance of the earth in sunlight and am suddenly back in childhood, skipping rope in my grandfather’s garden, the scent of tomato vines and feed and fertiliser all tumbling back in a warm glow of fondness. I watch the seedlings changing overnight, breathe in the scent of earth in rain, and think how many have gone before us in this humble yet magical endeavour. Life-giving life unfolds before our eyes, and I can only give thanks for it.
My running life has had a chequered past. I know I’m not alone in having detested cross-country at school, but that’s no true prediction of one’s relationship with the sport anyway. Who wants to be clambering through mud and weeds in the dead of winter, clad only in shorts and a polo shirt? Very few. A sadistic glint in the eye of our games mistress was never more apparent than on those frosty and overcast days. Only the heart can heal such misadventure, and inspire one to try again in later life.
In my latter teens my mother cajoled me onto the country lanes for two miles each day before breakfast, and I learned to love that wholesome start to the morning. But running was not so fashionable as aerobics in the late 80s and early 90s, so I soon chose to exert myself in the more convenient setting of a gym. It was only on joining Sri Chinmoy’s path of meditation in the late 90s that the subject of running even raised its head again. My Guru was a champion decathlete at the Indian ashram where he spent his youth. Later, having moved to America, he took up marathon and ultra-distance running.
Sri Chinmoy’s teachings combine the ancient depth of the East with the modern dynamism of the West. Though he enjoyed and excelled at many sports – weightlifting, football, tennis, cycling – running held a very special place in his heart. The Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run still continues each year – a torch relay, spreading the message of peace across countries and continents. Races are held each year in his name too, throughout the world – from 1 mile to 3100 miles.
So running is woven into this path of meditation, and in time I learned to love it again. I even managed to run a couple of marathons, and worked full-time at a branch of Run and Become for a few years. But overall my relationship with running has been rocky. For the last 20+ years I’ve battled with CFS and its retinue of ailments – with which I won’t bore you here. Not that running is necessary for spiritual progress, of course, and Sri Chinmoy would never encourage us to push ourselves beyond that which is safe or healthy anyway, but his emphasis on running stems from the inner opportunity it offers. It’s especially simple and direct.
And so I come to be huffing and chuntering like Ivor the Engine along a country lane at 7 o’clock of a Sunday morning. Each year our British and French meditation centres meet for weekends known as Joy Days. Amongst the regular features like meditation, singing, socialising and copious amounts of food, is the 2-mile race. Mine is usually a mile’s walk at best – a jog could render me unwell for at least the rest of Sunday, and probably Monday to boot. Let me not bore you here with the details of my new regime, but it has at least afforded me the luxury of tying on my running shoes and heaving my 115 lb frame along at a 12-minute pace.
In reaching the start line, I face both the physical discomfort of my lack of fitness and the social discomfort of displaying it to all and sundry. Need the race really be marshalled by a running coach, a Channel swimmer, a champion cyclist and a 3100-mile race finisher though? Apparently so. That should add to my embarrassment, but it adds to my amusement. I’ve found the best athletes are often the most encouraging to those least able anyway. My experience provides a great wealth of data on that subject, and today is no exception.
“I’m the last, thanks,” I gasp out triumphantly to each marshal I pass – or at least that’s what I hope it sounds like – informing them their job is done, so they can go in from the cold. From the final bend to the stopwatch probably feels like a long straight for anyone, but I can only coax myself from one tiny goal to another. At first the markers were big things, like cars or the stone walls of houses. On the ultimate lap they’re daffodils, barely a stride’s length apart.
Everything in me protests in pain and a desperate longing for air, but all ahead are kindly cheering, calling me on in oneness (and perhaps a little mirth – I don’t mind if so). While part of me cringes in self-consciousness, and I may be grimacing outwardly, most of me effuses joy and gratitude. Genuinely. This, let me tell you, is progress in itself.
The journey of accepting my fate as a perennial loser has been a long one. Twice a year I visit New York, where Sri Chinmoy made his home from 1964 to his passing in 2007. There we have a 2-mile race on Saturdays, for which I at least turn up. At the lofty peak of my fitness I only broke 17 minutes for 2 miles, and then just once. I have never been – and probably never will be – good at running in the physical sense.
But the point is self-transcendence – competing with one’s own prior achievements and with one’s own inner limitations. So mine is to do my best in propelling myself forward, but also – crucially, as I have learnt by hard experience – to do so with sincerity and cheerfulness. While watching my fitness decline over several years, I would often finish those races in tears – of frustration and self-pity – and there is far more shame in that than in finishing last, believe me. In the absence of athletic prowess, and when I also fail to remain in a soulful mood, I’ve since found the greatest asset to be a sense of humour.
Not only would I be lapped by countless runners, but would have to dodge round clusters of them at the finish, in order to embark on the last epic lap of my own. When I had looped back again at last, there was often just a space where the display clock had been, so I never actually knew how dismal my time was. A few helpers would be bumbling around, clearing dead cups from the street, the water urns all drained of their last drops when I was finally ready for them.
During Sri Chinmoy’s life he would offer a prayer and prasad (blessed food) at the end of each race. If I arrived in time for either, that counted as a victory to me. But often I was still shuffling around when everyone else turned back the other way in droves for breakfast, not considering for a moment that I might still be ‘racing’ at such velocity. Assuming I was doing some kind of modest cool-down, someone might even try to engage me in conversation. I wasn’t laughing then, but it’s hugely funny to me now.
It’s taken time, but having witnessed members of my family – for various reasons – unable to walk so far as the local shop for a pint of milk, I’ve seen my own capacities in a new light. Even when running has been out of the question, the ability to walk can seem like a super power in its own right. I can now say that to run at all, even pathetically badly, is a privilege. To run is to offer what I have – even the precious breath that feels like my last – with as honest and joyful a feeling as I can.
While Sri Chinmoy advocates a healthy body to support a life of meditation, he also sees running as a metaphor for life itself, as evidenced in his talks and poems. Through his teachings and through my own experience, I believe if I can master an approach to running, I take a step towards mastering my approach to life – albeit slow and shuffling. If ever I’m fortunate enough to join a race, I may well be last, but I need not be the loser.
The loser’s inner speed
The loser’s outer speed
The winner’s inner speed
The winner’s outer speed
– Sri Chinmoy (AP 645)
* * *
You can never be a loser,
You can only be a winner
If you race
On a sincerity-progress-track.
– Sri Chinmoy (AP 1257)
* * *
The Starter of all things
Is fond of both the winner
And the loser.
– Sri Chinmoy (AP 8135)
* * *
He is the great winner
He is the greater winner
Who is the cheerful loser.
He is the greatest winner
Who gives equal value
To victory and defeat.
He alone is the real loser
Defeat from victory.
– Sri Chinmoy (DL 939)
* * *
If you are a cheerful loser,
Then in God’s Eye
Nobody else but you
And you alone
Is the unparalleled winner.
– Sri Chinmoy (FF 9582)
* * *
Yours is not the life
Of a loser’s lamentation,
But yours is the heart
Of a winner’s exhilaration.
– Sri Chinmoy (ISA 23)
* * *
A gratitude-heart will always be
The first-place finisher
In the Heavenward race.
– Sri Chinmoy (ST 31885)
It is often said that while meditation is simple, it may not be easy. In a growing culture of ever-quicker fixes, those new to meditation are prone to giving up early, convinced they lack the aptitude. In truth, few take to it naturally right away. It is the effort, the direction, the giving of priority, of time, of space, which are pivotal. One cannot sow a seed and force its growth in the space of a day. Even a good meditation cannot be measured like a waistline or a golf score. One may not know how profound a meditation has been until surfacing again into the world, even if then.
Though I first learned to meditate around thirty years ago, and practised somewhat regularly, today marks twenty years of my formally practising a spiritual life, as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. Before embarking on such a journey – as on any journey – the mind wants to know what is involved. What skills, provisions, equipment will be required? How may I ready myself? One may as well leave provisions behind, along with any preconceptions. All is amply provided, and revealed in its own time. It need not make sense. In fact it is highly unlikely to make sense to the mind at all.
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes his personal tale of becoming a Trappist monk. He thought joining a silent order would mean a life of solitude, quietude, leaving the outer world – including his writing career – behind, and that seems a fair assumption. Were that assumption right, the book itself would not exist. In a candid open letter to God, he says:
Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, in the thirty-third year of my age, being a cleric in minor orders – before I went to make my solemn vows, this is what it looked like to me. It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.
By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was, or what my vocation was, and what our Cistercian vocation was. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.
That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.
– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith
Twenty years after lying in metaphorical dust myself, I know now as I knew then that this is right for me, when up to then I had no clue of how to lead my life. In fact I had made an awful mess of trying. I was especially fortunate the first ten years of my discipleship fell during Sri Chinmoy’s lifetime. The second have been spent since his passing, but are no less rich or rewarding. Though I meditate daily, sing songs my Guru composed, and read his writings, it would take more than a lifetime to absorb and apply even a fraction of these gifts.
Often Sri Chinmoy would take spiritual questions from an individual, and often his replies would be published for all to read. So many spiritual challenges are universal, as are the spiritual truths and inspirations a Master may give to answer them. But a significant aspect of Sri Chinmoy’s path is the idea that each person has a soul unique in all Creation, albeit a perfect spark of one Source. Spiritual progress is intertwined with the recognition of that soul – of the Source within us – and with bringing it to the fore in daily life. While the Goal of spiritual practice may be the same for all, the route is unique for each.
I was not outwardly all that close to Sri Chinmoy, and never had the opportunity to ask him spiritual questions. Rarely I had occasion to ask practical questions by letter, and yet more rarely he would address me directly in speech. If I could distil the outer portion of this teaching, it would have three points:
- Speak up
- Do what gives you joy
Simple, but not easy. Though concise and comprehensible, these prescriptions actually form more than a lifetime’s inner work for me. Yet they have already afforded me inner wealth beyond my imagining.
The first thing I should tell you, in case you don’t know, is that I’m a life-long introvert. Like Merton, if I thought the spiritual life would mean solitude – especially a complete withdrawal from speech – I would seriously consider it, albeit for different reasons. Mostly I can manage conversation with one person at a time, although the duration needs must vary. But when my voice reaches more than one set of ears, it is prone to falter. The facts and stories in my mind – generally well-ordered and filed, at least by category if not strictly by date – break or dissolve entirely under the pressure of presenting them. I would my mind could be so blank in meditation.
Many have tried to ‘cure’ me – trials by fire, as it were – but these experiments have only ended in further disaster. Such sea changes clearly cannot happen by force, if at all. There is no medicine for introversion anyway, as it is not an illness to be healed. While it is seen as weakness by an extrovert-led society, I have come to discover its strength. This is beautifully illustrated in a recent post by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew:
The real power-players today aren’t those who hold the big, external positions of leadership. They are the people who are calm, creative, able to step away from events, see them clearly, imagine new ways to frame them, and launch fearlessly back into that good work. They are willing to see both the big picture and the details. They are undaunted by the slow pace of creation. They love the process more than the product. They are people whose hearts are open to change, who create from that vulnerable, open place.
Indeed introversion need not equal a lack of confidence, and I believe that is what my Guru sought to teach me. True confidence has nothing to do with ego or audible volume – it is a deep inner quality, founded on the bedrock of the Source. And it is there I continue to search for it in myself – with varying success, but with an ever-clearer picture of my goal.
Of course, introversion is a great asset when it comes to writing. A writer must closet herself away from interference and distraction. Writing is neither simple nor easy, but I don’t find it anywhere near the onerous task poor Merton hints at. If speaking can one day bring me half as much enjoyment as writing, I’ll be jolly glad (and utterly amazed). Sri Chinmoy encouraged writing as a companion to the spiritual life. He himself wrote prolifically, and published hundreds of books, including thousands on thousands of poems. He recommended his disciples write down any experiences we may later find of inspiration. Even advanced aspirants cross bleak deserts on their journeys, and may even lose their way entirely. To recollect times of special insight or joy can help to reorient the seeker, and recalibrate inner instruments.
Requiring discipline, concentration and a courageous search within, writing itself can be its own sadhana. To write heightens my inner senses, and drives me to authenticity. On a human level, writing empowers the introvert in me – giving her time to compose her thoughts without interruption, contradiction or awkward silences. She may also imagine she is speaking to one person at a time, to allay any undue fear. But most of all it is the sharpening and widening of consciousness that draws me to it. The truest reasons are the same for writing as for meditation:
Our Goal is within us. To reach that Goal we have to take to the spiritual life. In the spiritual life, the thing that is most needed is awareness or consciousness. Without this, everything is a barren desert. When we enter into a dark place, we take a flashlight or some other light in order to know where we are going. If we want to know about our unlit life, we have to take the help of our consciousness. Let us go deeper into the matter. We know that the sun illumines the world. But how are we aware of it? We are aware of it through our consciousness, which is self-revealing. The functioning of the sun is not self-revealing. It is our consciousness of the sun that makes us feel that the sun illumines the world. It is our consciousness that is self-revealing in everything.
– Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life. The journey of India’s Soul.
Sri Chinmoy’s third prescription was given with regard to my occupation, and I could not have been more surprised had he recommended I become a construction worker, or a politician, or anything seemingly less compatible with my nature. That which has become an empowering and immensely practical piece of advice, at first baffled me completely. What has joy to do with work, I wondered. Is not work synonymous with toil, sacrifice and necessity?
By increments I have dared to follow it. I would not have thought to give myself such extravagant permission, but have found it equally liberating and practical in all aspects of living. It was as though he had handed me a kaleidoscope of wonder through which to see my life anew. In practice it is simple, but not easy. I must constantly ask myself where is the real distinction between joy and comfort. True joy is perhaps like eating a salad of fresh vegetables in every colour of the rainbow. Comfort or pleasure is like bingeing on half a packet of chocolate cookies. The latter brings only short-lived happiness and is instantly regrettable. Always we have the boon and the burden of free will.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott imagines we each have our own ‘emotional acre’ given at birth, and only we may decide how to use it. I love that image, and can see the metaphor applied to inner life in general:
As long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all. If you want your acre to look like a giant garage sale, or an auto-wrecking yard, that’s what you get to do with it.
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
I imagine my acre as mostly garden – perhaps a few covered rooms with lots of windows. My acre may appear plain to those who fill theirs with tall buildings and grand belongings. Though it may have many coloured fruits and flowers, its calm spaces are deliberate and essential. My acre may be too simple for some, but to keep a space clear when all of life is bent on crowding in it is not always easy. Not easy to spot and root out the bindweed of attachment, thistles of dissatisfaction, brambles of self-deception, and the creeping moss of insecurity. Daily it must be done. Hourly, even.
Mine is not to live as conventional nuns and monks do, but I endeavour to weave my spiritual practice into all of living – working, cleaning, cooking, eating always with an eye on the metaphorical garden. That is the way not only to spot the weeds, but also to enjoy its ample delights, its sweet fragrances and pure blossoms. And so, my one imaginary reader, I look out on a copse of metaphorical cherry trees as I write to you, and I wish you happy in your own acre too.
In gratitude to Sri Chinmoy for twenty astonishing years.
(…in my subjective opinion). This is a work in progress – I hope to collect more spiritual memoirs and autobiographies here as I read them, and write more on the ones I found the best. Do leave me your own recommendations in the comments, as I’m always looking out for more. Although my reading is somewhat skewed towards the Indian tradition – because that’s the basis of my own spiritual path – I enjoy sincere spiritual writing from any background.
Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo
I would treasure this book for the brilliant writing alone, but it is also a source of spiritual inspiration and an important historical record. Written with devotion, but without stooping to sentimentality, this is a description of one of the greatest spiritual Masters ever to live, from the viewpoint of his disciple and attendant, Nirodbaran. Until the late 1930s, Sri Aurobindo lived in almost complete seclusion at his Ashram in Pondicherry. Following an injury, and up until the time of his passing in 1950, he needed closer medical attention. The author initially entered the scene as a doctor, but over time his service evolved to cover various roles, including that of stenographer for Sri Aurobindo’s immortal works of poetry. A candid, humble and intimate account.
The Master as I Saw Him
Being Pages from the Life of the Swami Vivekanada
This is such a precious and important book. I just finished reading it for the second time, and I’m sure I will read it again. It is an incredibly humble but intelligent description of Swami Vivekanada’s life through the eyes of a close disciple. I found myself almost wishing Sister Nivedita had not been so humble in her writing, as I wanted to know more about her own struggles and victories, but of course that very humility is one of her greatest strengths, and she has achieved exactly what the title promises: Swami Vivekananda as she saw him. She herself is all but invisible while relating what she has learnt and what she remembers. Her Victorian use of language is delightfully precise. It has enough Western interpretation to make it relatable to a Western reader, but without losing the intensity or freshness of this remarkable life – a life instrumental in bringing Indian spiritual traditions to the West. It gives fascinating insights, not only into what it was like to be with Swami Vivekananda in person, but also into his teachings. It is moving and often breath-taking, without at any point being sentimental.
My Guru and His Disciple
I absolutely love this book. I almost wished I could wipe it from my memory as soon as I’d finished it, so I could go back and discover it anew right away. Isherwood’s writing itself is a work of genius – his descriptions are pure elegant simplicity, completely clear windows on his experience. His honesty as a spiritual seeker is itself a triumph. The story describes his time with Swami Prabhavananda, and how he struggles to balance East and West, inner and outer life.
A Search in Secret India
For anyone seeking a spiritual teacher, or even anyone having found the right one, this story is incredibly moving. Brunton’s erudite use of language, coupled with his ruthless inner and outer search, makes this a gripping read from start to finish. Following an inner call, he spends months travelling around India, interrogating yogis, pundits and fakirs – some genuine and some not so. His descriptions of the journey alone would make a beautiful travel journal. But his descriptions of inner experiences are breath-taking, especially those in the company of the great Ramana Maharshi. I can’t believe I had not come across this book before now – it’s amongst the very finest examples of this genre.
Story of a Soul
The Autobiography of the Little Flower
Saint Thérèse de Lisieux
I highly recommend this book to any sincere spiritual seeker, regardless of religious background. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux was clearly born an extraordinary person with a unique spiritual calling, and yet her story is written straight from the heart, with such humility and simplicity, it becomes relatable. Personally I find it comforting that even a saint can have earthly struggles: not only physical illnesses, but also feeling pain when others are unkind. Somehow this gives me hope – for myself and for the rest of humanity – that our own struggles are not in vain.
Autobiography of a Yogi
This book probably needs no introduction, as it’s widely known and immensely popular. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. Touching to the heart, fascinating to the mind, nourishing for the soul, this is a must-read.
The Seven Storey Mountain
An Autobiography of Faith
This is a long book, and parts of it are a little prescriptive for an autobiography. Even so, I did not skip or scan a single word – partly due to Merton’s captivating honesty, and partly due to his brilliant gift for recall and description. The story charts his life from childhood in France, education in England, traveling in Italy and working in New York during the 1930s, then to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky. His somewhat dour exterior gives way to sensitive and candid insights. His observation of people – including himself – is especially astute. A spiritual search can often be tortuous, so in a sense the long route adds authenticity. This is a true classic, and one I will revisit like an old friend – one who understands how it is to examine the outer world and to find it wanting in fulfilment.
Long Quiet Highway
Waking Up in America
This is one of my favourite books full stop, let alone spiritual memoirs. Natalie Goldberg’s writing itself comes from the sort of genius that makes you sit up and pay attention, whatever she happens to be talking about, but the story is compelling too, making this a real treasure of spiritual literature. Goldberg takes the reader by the hand as she struggles to make sense of life, to work out who she is and where she belongs, ultimately discovering Zen meditation and her spiritual teacher Katagiri Roshi. This is a vibrant, intimate, and often funny book, thanks to the author’s honesty and her passion for living authentically.
This is an unusual story, in that the author remembers experiences in past incarnations – most notably one in ancient Egypt – and links them to her present life. It’s fascinating just from a scientific and historical viewpoint as she recalls in great detail mysterious practices from thousands of years ago. From a spiritual viewpoint it is all the more captivating and inspiring, if a little terrifying in places. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s the kind of book that stays with you, for better or worse. From it I’ve found genuine encouragement to be ever more conscious in my own spiritual life.
Daughter of Fire
A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master
Following the death of her husband, Russian-born Irina Tweedie found her Sufi master during a trip to India at the age of 52. This book is the diary he told her keep, spanning five years of her spiritual journey. He insisted she wrote down everything, including her doubts and struggles. Chasm of Fire is a shorter version of her journal, but I like the transparency of this complete version. I was not very familiar with Sufism when I first read it, so I found her unfoldment of its customs fascinating and beautiful. Tweedie was the first Western woman to be trained in this tradition, and above all I admire her courage. Hers was a challenging journey to say the least, but she stuck with it through thick and thin, and her inner rewards are plain to see.
Some Thoughts on Faith
I’m not really sure where to start with this one, and I only chose one because it seemed unfair to choose three from the same author. Grace (Eventually) and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith equally deserve a mention. Lamott’s writing is not only moving, funny, courageous and relatable, but is also aesthetically brilliant. She never shies from the struggles and imperfections of being human, and so her spiritual insights and breakthroughs are all the more precious. I love everything about these books, but Lamott’s Christian calling in Traveling Mercies is particularly moving.
On Sri Chinmoy’s Sunlit Path
Stories by disciples of Sri Chinmoy
A very good introduction to Sri Chinmoy‘s life as a spiritual Master and life in the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It somehow encapsulates the vast diversity of Sri Chinmoy’s activities, as well as the diversity of his students. It also illustrates the sacred bond between Guru and disciple, particularly in a modern context. Here people from various countries and backgrounds talk about their experiences with Sri Chinmoy while he was on earth, as well as describing how their spiritual lives have continued to flourish since his passing in 2007. One gets a broad overview, but from the very personal viewpoints of many different writers. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Eastern spirituality as applied to Western and modern life. A colourful, interesting read, full of contrast and variety.
Now and Then
A Memoir of Vocation
Now and Then is the second in a trilogy of short memoirs by Buechner, along with The Sacred Journey and Telling Secrets. This is my favourite of the three, though I enjoyed them all. It covers the author’s rather shambling journey to seminary, and a gradual growing into life as a Christian minister. I love the stark realism in the stories, and his broad-minded approach to religion. His melancholy, self-deprecating honesty is utterly endearing, and the writing is sublime. His views on writing itself, and how it may dovetail with a spiritual life, are brave and consoling. While the sentences can be long, tiring journeys, the destination is always worth the effort. These are books I will treasure and re-visit.
I haven’t binge-read in a long time, but this book leapfrogged all the others waiting patiently on my shelf. Western culture has assumed for too long that women committing their lives to spirituality do so either because society has failed them, or because they have failed in society. If ever you thought nuns lack moxie, individuality, intelligence or social conscience, you’ll be glad to see such myths debunked. On the other hand, if (like me) you’re following a genuine spiritual path of your own, especially if (like me) you’re female, you’ll be very glad to see such myths debunked. You might even let out a Hurrah! of solidarity. These ten stories are collected by a self-confessed sceptic, straight from the mouths of nuns – nuns from a variety of backgrounds, in a variety of orders, with strong views and unique characters. These are memoirs at their most raw – beautifully transparent and richly authentic.
Angels in My Hair
The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic
Another book that probably needs no introduction. Byrne’s simplicity and humility, her struggles and victories, I find most inspiring. Reading her I feel like I’m sitting down by a cosy fireside with a cup of tea. It’s as though she’s right there talking, and I’m on the edge of my seat, saying, “Tell me more!”.
Bones of the Master
A Journey to Secret Mongolia
Gritty and honest (gruesome in places) this book feels like a friend, and I missed it when it was finished. I became very fond of the characters, the descriptions of inner and outer experiences, the insights into Ch’an Buddhism, and the poetry. It inspires and instructs, powerfully but with a light touch, like a poem in itself. Highly recommended to anyone interested in spiritual memoir and/or travel writing.
At the Feet of my Master
The Oneness of an ascending heart-cry and a descending Soul-Smile
A rare and special book, written by a close disciple of Sri Chinmoy. This is a short read, but rich in content, never shying away from the hot-potato topics faced by every spiritual seeker – jealousy, insecurity, doubt, pride, et al. While at times painful, at times funny, it is consistently inspiring and illumining. An honest and intimate view of the relationship between a contemporary spiritual Master and his disciple.
Blue Like Jazz
Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
I wasn’t sure where this book was going at first, but was soon drawn in to Miller’s sincerity. His story is meaningful because he has not taken life or spirituality at face value – he’s not afraid to take things apart and experience them for himself. Somehow faith that survives that examination has a deep strength, and I find that admirable. His writing is candid and unpretentious. Sometimes I found him a little too flippant – he gave Buddhism quite a hard time here and there for example. I’m not a Buddhist, but it made me uncomfortable at first. Then I realised that’s just how he is – he gives himself the hardest time of all. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book overall, it’s a very inspiring and refreshing read. I would recommend it to anyone from any faith with a broad-minded approach to spirituality, who is interested in deepening their own experience. Read the book rather than watching the film – it didn’t work at all for me on screen.
Girl Meets God
On the Path to a Spiritual Life
I found the candid descriptions of Winner’s journey refreshing and uplifting. She’s obviously very sincere in her spiritual quest, but she’s also very honest about her own capacities. It’s an easy read in terms of story-telling, but she shares a lot of academic and technical knowledge on Christianity and Judaism. Not knowing in detail what it’s like to be inside either religion, I found that illumining and interesting, especially when it’s put in the context of the author’s personal experience. The story doesn’t seem to have much of a structure – it’s more a collection of snapshots which make up a fuller picture – but personally I didn’t mind at all. Life is like that, so it’s somehow all the more relatable that way.
A Memoir of Faith and Discovery
This is the story of a Lutheran pastor taking his first post in a rural American town, fresh out of seminary, believing himself amply equipped for the task, if not somewhat above it. As the community inadvertently gives him one character-building challenge after another, Lischer realises the true complexity of his role, and observes his own transformation with candour and humility. I often found myself somewhere between tears and laughter, frequently thinking, “Poor fellow! whatever next?,” as I witnessed him reconciling his training, his conscience, and his earnest faith. That which seems outwardly banal is turned into a study of human strength and goodness, as heart-warming as it is eye-opening.
The Boy Who Saw True
The Time-Honoured Classic of the Paranormal
Most of the story comprises the diary of a young boy, living in the north of England at the end of the 19th Century. The author at first has no idea that his special gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience are in the least unusual. He is innocent to the fact that not everyone may converse with the deceased, watch gnomes or fairies at play in the garden, or discern a person’s health and temperament by the state of his aura. Indeed such things are recorded in the same breath as everyday household news. Later, since so many topics are taboo at the time, he assumes it is simply not polite to mention them. Fortunately, with the help of teachers both worldly and ethereal, he learns to protect and nurture his talents. I found his relationships with these teachers most beautiful and moving, especially with one he sees only in visions, and first assumes must be Jesus.
Hybrid Spiritual Memoirs
Following are some good books that have a spiritual-memoir aspect.
He and I
This is a very unusual book, translated from the French original Lui et Moi. Gabrielle Bossis was a single woman – a nurse and later a playwright. Here was a friendly and vivacious person – very much in the world of work and creativity, rather than living in seclusion as a nun. Yet her inner relationship with Christ is intensely strong. The story is not strictly a memoir, but she relates the teachings to her own experiences, so it is certainly a journey of discovery. I find this book deeply moving and encouraging. It brings the Ineffable into everyday life, and reminds us that is where He most wants to be.
The Eternal Companion
Swami Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings
This is part biography and part memoir. Swami Prabhavananda’s reminiscences of Swami Brahmananda’s life and teachings are compelling and beautiful in themselves. Then there is a section towards the end where different people speak about what they remember of the Master, this dear disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. It is of course inspiring to hear of the greatness of spiritual masters – their power and luminosity – but the goodness in the smallest details of life is easily overlooked. Often such actions are just as instructive; sometimes more so, because they are more relatable.
The Snow Leopard
Technically this is a travel memoir, but it has a deep spiritual foundation. Worth five stars just for the aesthetic quality of the writing, let alone the masterful weaving together of inner and outer experiences. Ruggedly beautiful.
Acedia & Me
A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life
A book about spiritual apathy and hopelessness does not sound very inspiring at first, but the author’s battle against it certainly is. Acedia & Me is partly a text-book on the subject. It’s scholarly and rigorously researched, citing writings over the centuries that show acedia to be an age-old challenge. More than that, Norris posits acedia in the modern age, offering her own experience for detecting and conquering what monastics have long considered a demon. Thus her memoirs are woven throughout, as she faces down acedia in relationships, work and the repetitions of daily life. Though peppered with humour, it is a serious book. The subject itself is not light reading, and Norris faced many difficulties in her personal life, but it’s refreshing to see someone tackle such a difficult subject. Norris affirms that spiritual progress is not always a bowl of cherries, but that’s okay. Ultimately what matters is that it’s worth the effort.
Hand Wash Cold
Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
Karen Maezen Miller
Uplifting, honest and masterfully written. I devoured this as a story in one sitting, but it could just as well be used for reference. It’s a little didactic for my taste, but the title admits it will be, so that’s not a complaint. While instruction is the premise of the book, Maezen – a wife, mother and Zen Buddhist priest – also describes her own continuing transformation with sincerity and beautiful prose. The main themes are self-acceptance and the sanctity of everyday life – the idea that paying attention to the ‘ordinary’, and taking it as spiritual practice, can lead to an extraordinary experience. I am always glad to be reminded of this alchemy, and it’s always worth celebrating.
Other Spiritual Memoirs I Enjoyed
Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong
Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis
The Initiate in the New World, Cyril Scott
Six Lighted Windows, Swami Yogeshananda
A Search in Secret Egypt, Paul Brunton
The Autobiography of an Indian Monk, Shri Purohit Swami
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander
Writing the Sacred Journey
Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir
Elizabeth Jarret Andrew
Thinking of writing your own story, but not sure where to start? This is surely a treasure trove for any budding, struggling, or thriving memoirist. It’s meticulously researched – both inwardly and outwardly – showing a rich depth of understanding. There is also a refreshingly broad use of the term “spiritual”, beyond the more obvious religious experience, to include any inner quest for meaning through outer life: whether via nature, or the death of a loved one, or even via writing itself. I only wish I’d found this book before I started writing Auspicious Good Fortune!
We were very fortunate to welcome Agnikana’s Group to York on October 27th, for a concert entitled ‘Music for Inner Peace’, at the De Grey Rooms.
The music group is based in the Czech Republic, with members also from Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria and Canada. They perform solely the music of Sri Chinmoy, and have toured many countries across the world. The concert was part of their autumn tour of the UK and Ireland.
With a range of instruments – including the Indian harmonium, guitar, concert and wooden flutes, santur and glockenspiel – the music is soulful and ethereal, blending angelic voices with acoustic instrumental arrangements of Sri Chinmoy’s music. The performance was exquisite, from start to finish. As one lady said, “I did not want it to end.”
‘Ore Tora’ was composed by Sri Chinmoy, to the words of Sri Ramakrishna:
The lone lamenting of an owl
kept me from my sleep –
that and a silence
foreign and exotic to my ear.
I stood inside the open door
by marsh and brush
to gaze out on a nightscape
free of any human sign.
The far off fells were only
rough charcoal sketches.
Wind funnelled up Borrowdale,
bending dry autumn grass
that glowed in starlight.
Above me they hung
cold and mysterious:
my old friend the Plough
and all her pale neighbours
and all the bright emptiness
that often brought me peace.
But while their great presence
pricked my eyes with tears
and I was mute to my core
shivering with awe and chill
in the timeless quiet,
I wanted nothing
than to cling to this world
with its flaws and frictions,
as only here may we learn
and grow in virtue.
A wider peace followed
than is born of solitude,
and I journeyed back
to the rabble of the city,
to the unsecluded suburbs,
to the tasks and complications,
with new hope
and new affection.
I’m currently reading Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich (1373). Nobody knows Julian’s real name or where she began, and most other details are based on conjecture. But we do know she wrote some of the greatest prose of her time, and was even the first woman to write a book in English (as far as anyone can tell). What fascinates me particularly is that the book opens as a spiritual memoir – a genre very close to my heart.
I confess the above is not a picture of Julian. We don’t know what she looked like, as she doesn’t tell us. There is a modern statue of her at the entrance of Norwich Cathedral, but I can’t picture her so troubled and stony as that. She often uses the word ‘homely’ in her writings, so I see her as plumpish, rosy, and as sanguine as anyone dared to be in those days. This is just a painting by Rogier van der Weyden from around Julian’s time, which Penguin have adopted for their cover. As an unknown Dutch woman, it’s otherwise irrelevant, but it does seem to have a little more about it.
The Church in Julian’s day was far from sanguine, and wasn’t much interested in women’s rights either. It was steeped in national politics, fixated on sin and hell to frighten peasants and keep them subordinate. Only a fifth of men would have been able to read, and far fewer women. Most teaching was received via sermons and paintings in church, so the religious imagery was often gruesome and menacing. Many of the literate were part of the Church, and would thus have used Latin. Heretics were burned at the stake for even reading the Bible in English.
So for a woman to write at all, let alone on religious matters – and in English, the language of the masses – was not only astonishing, but also dangerous. Add the fact that Julian experienced God as an unconditionally loving parent, with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities, and it all becomes terribly shocking. God came to her as powerful and omnipotent, but equally as nurturing, reassuring, ‘homely’ and compassionate. She even uses the term ‘meek’ in certain cases.
Until the age of thirty, Julian (whatever her name was then) lived as a laywoman, and was probably from quite a privileged background. She then fell seriously ill. Barely able to see, and with paralysis creeping up her body, she surrendered herself to the seemingly inevitable. A priest was called to administer last rites, and as part of the ritual held a crucifix up to her face. The wooden figure came to life before Julian’s eyes, and there followed a series of vivid and detailed visions, replete with teachings: in words, images and inner realisations. These form the basis of her sixteen Revelations.
From the time of her visions until death in her early seventies, our heroine lived as an anchoress, never leaving the cell attached to her namesake, St Julian’s Church. Her room had no doors, but three windows: one opening onto the church for services, one for supplies and waste, and another facing the street. There she would have met with people from wealthy and lowly backgrounds alike, offering her counsel. No doubt she formed some careful friendships in this way, and her writings thus found a secret audience.
After Julian’s death, the manuscript seemed to disappear, perhaps hiding here and there in wealthy homes and monasteries, but between the Reformation in the 15th Century and the French Revolution in the 18th, many such copies were no doubt destroyed. Mysteriously, at the start of the 20th Century, Grace Warrack came across a copy in the British Library, hand-written by 17th Century nuns. She translated it from its original East Anglian dialect to more modern English, and further modernisations by other editors have followed since.
Many thanks to Bhashini for recommending The Search for the Lost Manuscript – a BBC documentary by Dr Janina Ramirez. But for that, I would probably have never started reading Julian’s works, and would know very little of her history. It’s an amazing wealth of research, compellingly presented.
All shall be well
The more I read, the more the book rings true to me. I even see so many parallels in the modern-day writings of Sri Chinmoy. Initially it was this well-known line which prompted me to read on:
…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
It kept turning in my mind, and I realised how much power it had amidst the struggles and disappointments of daily life, not to mention the constant barrage of devastation one hears in the news. Its context is Julian questioning why sin had to be created in the first place, since everything is made by God.
And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. This stirring [of mind] was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
She questions Christ further, troubled by the thought of those who have died as heathens and cannot be saved according to the Church, thus condemned to eternal damnation. In our day I may occupy myself by wondering “without reason and discretion” how we will avoid another Cold War (or a not-so-cold one), or how my country will thrive outside the EU. Either way, whatever seems impossible to us is not so to God.
And as to this I had no other answer in Shewing of our Lord God but this: That which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me: I shall save my word in all things and I shall make all things well. Thus I was taught, by the grace of God, that I should steadfastly hold me in the Faith as I had aforehand understood, [and] therewith that I should firmly believe that all things shall be well, as our Lord shewed in the same time.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
In Sri Chinmoy’s words:
Precisely because He is all Love and all Goodness, God will never allow mankind to destroy this beautiful world of His. Sleeplessly He tells us to claim His world as our own, and to serve Him in this world by increasing the purity and divinity of our lives….
“We must remember that the Creator is always more powerful than His creation. The Creator can easily influence or change the negative and destructive forces in the world. Our Beloved Supreme could stop a pending nuclear disaster, for example, by changing the mind of the pilot who was about to drop the life-devastating bomb. So we must have faith in our Creator and trust that He will, without fail, do the needful for His creation.
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 14
Does sin exist?
One especially radical idea in Julian’s writings is that there is not really any such thing as sin:
But I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being, nor could it be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and to ask mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and so is His blessed will.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
To me this passage echoes Eastern traditions, summing up the concept of karma. We suffer when we go against the dictates of our soul, when we harm others and destroy goodness in the world. God does not want us to suffer, but often there is no other way for our lower nature to learn and progress. Hell is thus not a physical place necessarily, but a state of consciousness – the result of one’s own mistakes and inner blindness. It is not a permanent state, but an inevitable state in the course of human evolution. In Sri Chinmoy’s words:
To me, sin is a kind of imperfection or ignorance. It is not necessarily something very bad, ugly or untouchable. In the process of evolution we are aiming at perfection, but right now most of us are still wallowing in the pleasures of ignorance and self-indulgence. Each self-indulgent action of ours is a manifestation of our present ignorance. As long as we remain in ignorance, we will do things wrong, we will commit sins. But we must not feel that we are completely lost or covered in darkness. We are just progressing from less light to more light, and ultimately to liberation from ignorance-imperfection-sin.
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 30
God and Anger
And notwithstanding all this, I saw soothfastly that our Lord was never wroth, nor ever shall be. For He is God: Good, Life, Truth, Love, Peace; His Clarity and His Unity suffereth Him not to be wroth.… For our soul is so fully oned to God of His own Goodness that between God and our soul may be right nought.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
No, God does not get angry. Our way of anger and God’s way of anger are totally different. God’s anger is His divine dispensation. When He sees that His love does not work, then He uses His force.”
– Sri Chinmoy, GSH 143
God and Happiness
All this was shewed in these words: Art thou well pleased? – and by that other word that Christ said: If thou art pleased, then am I pleased;—as if He said: It is joy and satisfying enough to me, and I ask nought else of thee for my travail but that I might well please thee. And in this He brought to mind the property of a glad giver. A glad giver taketh but little heed of the thing that he giveth, but all his desire and all his intent is to please him and solace him to whom he giveth it. And if the receiver take the gift highly and thankfully, then the courteous giver setteth at nought all his cost and all his travail, for joy and delight that he hath pleased and solaced him that he loveth. Plenteously and fully was this shewed.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Is on the top
Of God’s Priority List.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 28115
God’s only Aim
Is to make me happy
And see me happy.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 40104
God will never
Of loving me.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 9394
Julian’s Revelations are soothing to the mind and comforting to a heart that recognises the truth in them. I find solace in that line, “…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” because it reminds me of how I feel after a good meditation, when the mind and body are calmed, when action – mental and physical – no longer seem so urgent. One realises how little can actually be solved by doing, and how much by being.
It was early on a summer Sunday I took myself walking through small enclaves of meadow and marsh, pondering how my love of England has grown as I’ve grown – from the petty resentment and boredom of teenhood where everything disappoints, to the middle of life with twenty years’ spiritual practice behind me. From this point, so much can be seen as rich with promise and inner charm.
Since finding ‘home’ in a spiritual community, not only have I lost the urge to run away (to just about anywhere) from the place where I was born; now there is nowhere else I’d rather be. In the aftermath of recent political friction, my fondness is all the more alive. In a Judgment of Solomon kind of moment, I found myself more heartbroken to witness my country slicing itself in two with vicious argument than I could be by either outcome of a vote – much less the resulting changes in government. Let anyone look after her, so long as she survives (and ideally thrives).
As I passed gorse sitting calmly by clover, the bullrush by bindweed, knapweed nestled by vetch, a poppy beside a purple orchid, and all the unremarkable grasses standing patiently between, I noted how nature finds its own balance. Meadows do not conform to any regulation of size or colour or provenance, yet the result is a carnival of life, ever-new and ever-changing. If weeds can figure things out between themselves, are we quite as clever as we’d like to think?
People from abroad joke about the rain in Blighty, but without it none of this would flourish. Not for everyone these isles with carefully defined (and rarely savage) seasons. This is not a place of high drama in a meteorological sense, or in many senses for that matter. I’m told expats to southern Europe long to spot a cloud in the unbroken blue, and miss staple items such as mists and squalls. I’m told the chocolate we enjoy would be wrong on every level to a Belgian, and his would be wrong to the Swiss. As with confectionery, so with weather (and Marmite, to an even greater extent) – it depends what one considered ‘normal’ in childhood.
Just as I was born in England, have chosen to stay, and have grown to love it incrementally, there are parallels in my life of meditation. Though I was not born to my spiritual path, I’ve always felt it was destined by a higher power than the force of my own tiny and fallible will, as was my country of birth. Every day I’ve chosen to stay, I’ve grown to love it more. Many people never find their place in the world, or when they do are bound by circumstances, fenced off from their dreams. Gazing out at wisps of cloud over a ripening field of grain, split by a railway and bordered by suburban housing, I realise I’m lucky to have the luxury of calling so many things ‘normal’, if not exactly ordinary – from sanitation to meditation.
A visitor to one of our meditation classes last week commented that the music he’d been hearing was all “pretty much of a muchness”. I had to laugh at a frankness so rare in Britain. “I suppose meditation itself is pretty much of a muchness,” I said. On the surface it seems like nothing’s happening, but therein is the potential beginning of everything. When my teacher Sri Chinmoy was young, he lived at an ashram in the south of India. His favourite job was washing dishes, because it required very little input from the mind, leaving him free to meditate. Most people would find the task dull and thankless, but from his meditation was born the life of a champion athlete, a writer, artist, peace dreamer and world server.
We’re fortunate the UK’s turmoil has been mostly administrative, but it does seem like we’re crawling through a tunnel, still peering through the gloom for the light at the end. Our problems are as nothing compared those of most other countries though, and even Blighty has weathered worse. This little tea-drinking, train-spotting, morris-dancing place may not be much, but it’s home.
Hope abides; therefore I abide.
Countless frustrations have not cowed me.
I am still alive, vibrant with life.
The black cloud will disappear,
The morning sun will appear once again
In all its supernal glory.
– Sri Chinmoy, STMS 47